All though it is not a holiday on my side of the pond, I am well aware of the fact that many of you are celebrating Thanksgiving today. A beautiful tradition with wonderful customs and rich foods to last for the rest of the year… and then there is always the recurring controversy surrounding the celebration, which is for a great deal understandable and frustrating and not likely to go away, as we can not change what happened in the past…
In Holland we have a holiday of our own around this time of year, which has become a bit more controversial than we seem to be able to handle, even though the discussion has lingered in the background for years. It’s the holiday of Sinterklaas, or as it is commonly referred to in English: Saint Nicholas. Sounds familiar right? Well, the plump guy from the North Pole many of you know and welcome into your homes in December, is based on the same guy that arrives in the Netherlands every year from Spain. Where Santa has a sleigh with reindeer as a ride, our man has a white horse called Amerigo and a big ol’ steamboat to bring all the presents up to our small little country. And well, where Santa has a bunch of elves helping out, Sinterklaas has a bunch of negroes doing the work….
He has a whole army of them and they are all called Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), with curly black hair, golden earrings and big red lips. There are female Petes as well, but their name is still Pete. The Petes are well loved by all, all though kids are a bit afraid of them, as they are also the ones that take you back to Spain with them in their big jute bags, if you’ve been a bad child that year. Oh yes, they also carry a bundle of sticks to hit you with… Really, don’t ask, I don’t even know….
Anyway, we have managed to convince ourselves and the world for a very long time that this tradition is not at all racist, that we love and respect Zwarte Piet very much and that Sinterklaas would be lost without his Petes. This year however, we seem to be failing at this and I must admit that for the first time in my life I have come to believe that we are indeed doing something wrong and that it might be time to change…
As I said, this discussion about Zwarte Piet has been around for years, but this year, it has become bigger, louder and more extreme than ever before. The whole thing exploded when the United Nations decided to say something about it and even threatened to prohibit the holiday all together.
Now, first of all I would like to start by saying I think it is absolutely ridiculous the United Nations thought it wise or necessary to say something about this at all and even started an “investigation” to determine if the tradition was indeed racist or not. A ridiculous waste of time and resources that could have been applied so much better on at least 100 different and more important matters. At first, I thought the discussion would blow over and out, along with the first big autumn storm as it always has, but I was wrong.
Sadly, in an attempt to defend Black Pete and prove that we don’t have racism running through our culture, my fellow countrymen have accomplished the exact opposite. I am now convinced, more than ever, that we are indeed racists and that we have been blind to it all this time.
As a counter reaction to the UN report, stating Sinterklaas “might be racist”, a petition was started to defend our tradition. The Piet-ition went viral nationwide, sparking reactions such as “If you don’t like Zwarte Piet, you are not Dutch”, or even worse, “If Zwarte Piet isn’t allowed, than neither is Eid al Fitr”. I almost shit my pants out of shame, reading these reactions, and couldn’t believe all these people didn’t understand how counterproductive they were being.
I am still convinced children do not see Zwarte Piet through racist eyes and that we were doing fine telling the kids that Pete is black because he climbs down the chimneys to put presents in the children’s shoes. We always said that Petes were in fact themselves children, who had been naughty and were taken back to Spain to help Sinterklaas prepare for the next year. This all made sense, especially as they were always portrayed as being a bit mischievous and fun loving, as naughty kids would be. Even more so, they were the cunning and witty ones in the equation, where Sinterklaas was often portrayed as the sweet and generous, yet slightly forgetful, old man. Without Zwarte Piet, Sinterklaas is a pretty dull old guy. Even his horse is boring.
But instead of making space for an open dialogue, acknowledging the feelings of others and showing some willingness to share experiences, we have engulfed in this crazy crusade and made complete fools of ourselves. Everyone’s yelling and no one’s listening.
Black Pete is now indeed tainted. Well done. Idiots.